Sweden qualified for Euro 2012 as the best group runners-up after scoring an impressive 31 goals in 10 games. But it was a shaky ride for Erik Hamren’s men after they were left in a state of shock by a thrashing in Holland and the campaign produced a series of highs and lows.
To avoid the play-offs Sweden had to beat the Dutch in the final game – and without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But they did just that, despite trailing 2-1 early in the second half. A 3-2 victory provoked a national euphoria and a sigh of relief as Sweden finally found themselves back with the big boys.
Four years have passed since the national side have competed in a major tournament and many things have changed. Two of the three big stars, Fredrik Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson, have retired from international football, and a group of less experienced players, most from the successful under-21 team, have come in.
The boss is also new. Lars Lagerback, who had taken the country to five straight major championships, quit after failing to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa – although he still went, with Nigeria.
His successor, Hamren, made a somewhat tricky start and at his first press conference, in November 2009, he had to break the news that the third star, Ibrahimovic, was taking time out from the national team. However, the Milan forward did come back seven months later and was made captain.
The change in coach was much needed as Sweden had tired of Lagerback’s safety-first tactics. There is now widespread optimism about Hamren’s more attacking approach, but it is hard to know what to expect from his team, especially since the defence is weaker.
While veteran Olof Mellberg is still a top-class defender, his colleagues are not. When Daniel Majstorovic damaged his knee in February, Hamren had to find a new partner for Mellberg, settling on the internationally inexperienced Jonas Olsson of West Bromwich Albion.
Left-back has been a revolving door, with Oscar Wendt and Behrang Safari both dropped after poor displays. Safari has since been reprieved but now trails Martin Olsson of Blackburn Rovers in the queue. Olsson has done OK but his patchy defending has been exposed in the Premier League.
Right-back Mikael Lustig played every minute of the qualifying campaign but has had injuries lately and featured little for Celtic. There is no ready-made substitute so the probable back-up will be centre-back Andreas Granqvist.
In attack things look much brighter. The big breakthrough has been Manchester City’s 20-year-old John Guidetti, on loan at Feyenoord and who was handed his first cap in February. Johan Elmander also had a great first season with Galatasaray in Turkey, while Ola Toivonen continued to shine for PSV Eindhoven.
And then there is Ibrahimovic. The most high-profile Swede polarises opinion, with half the country in love with him and the other constantly finding new reasons to dislike him. Some even think he affects the team negatively, that they play better without him. It is true a bored and irritated Ibrahimovic spreads a lot of negative energy around him on the pitch, but when he is in the right mood he carries the team on his shoulders – as he showed in the 3-1 win over Croatia in February, scoring one goal and making the other two.
Sweden’s destiny at Euro 2012 is to a large extent down to which Ibrahimovic turns up. The captain has to perform at his highest level for the team to advance from the group.
And he aims high. When he announced his return, Ibrahimovic said he felt Hamren and he shared the same winning mentality. He even made everybody in the room laugh when he added: “And Erik has promised me a medal.”
He was probably only half joking.
EURO 2012 FIXTURES
11.06.12 Ukraine (Kiev, Ukr)
15.06.12 England (Kiev, Ukr)
19.06.12 France (Kiev, Ukr)
EURO 2012 SQUAD
23 Par Hansson (25) 22.06.86 Helsingborg
1 Andreas Isaksson (30) 03.10.81 PSV (Hol)
12 Johan Wiland (31) 24.01.81 Copenhagen (Den)
15 Mikael Antonsson (31) 31.05.81 Bologna (Ita)
4 Andreas Granqvist (27) 16.04.85 Genoa (Ita)
2 Mikael Lustig (25) 22.214.171.124 Celtic (Sco)
3 Olof Mellberg (34) 03.09.77 Olympiakos (Gre)
13 Jonas Olsson (29) 10.03.83 West Brom (Eng)
5 Martin Olsson (24) 17.05.88 Blackburn Rovers (Eng)
17 Behrang Safari (27) 09.02.85 Anderlecht (Blg)
19 Emir Bajrami (24) 07.03.88 Twente (Hol)
6 Rasmus Elm (24) 17.03.88 AZ (Hol)
18 Samuel Holmen (27) 28.06.84 Istanbul BB (Tur)
9 Kim Kallstrom (29) 24.08.82 Lyon (Fra)
7 Sebastian Larsson (27) 06.06.85 Sunderland (Eng)
8 Anders Svensson (35) 17.07.76 Elfsborg
16 Pontus Wernbloom (25) 25.06.86 CSKA Moscow (Rus)
21 Christian Wilhelmsson (32) 08.12.79 Al Hilal (Sau)
11 Johan Elmander (31) 27.05.81 Galatasaray (Tur)
14 Tobias Hysen (30) 09.03.82 Gotherburg
10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic (30) 03.10.81 Milan (Ita)
22 Markus Rosenberg (29) 27.09.82 unattached
20 Ola Toivonen (25) 03.07.86 PSV (Hol)
Erik Hamren (54) 27.06.57
* Striker John Guidetti missed out due to an inflamed nerve in a thigh muscle.
EURO 2012 QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN
03.09.10 Hungary (h) 2-0
07.09.10 San Marino (h) 6-0
12.10.10 Holland (a) 1-4
29.03.11 Moldova (h) 2-1
03.06.11 Moldova (a) 4-1
07.06.11 Finland (h) 5-0
02.09.11 Hungary (a) 1-2
06.09.11 San Marino (a) 5-0
07.10.11 Finland (a) 2-1
11.10.11 Holland (h) 3-2
P W D L F A Pts
Holland 10 9 0 1 37 8 27
Sweden* 10 8 0 2 31 11 24
Hungary 10 6 1 3 22 14 19
Finland 10 3 1 6 16 16 10
Moldova 10 3 0 7 12 16 9
San Marino 10 0 0 10 0 53 0
* qualified as best runner-up
By Johanna Gara